Friday, May 5, 2017

American Zombie: How William Seabrook made International Zombie Awareness Month necessary

As technology- film and airplanes mostly- brought isolationist America a taste of the exotic- men sprang up to be their interlocutors in the 1920s.

Lowell Thomas, who made his name and fortune on Lawrence of Arabia’s World War II campaigns, became the newsreel man.

Richard Halliburton, a cheerful, plucky all-American sort, rounded the globe for adventures-starring himself- in newspapers, lectures, and books.

And William Buehler Seabrook (1884-1945) was pretty much what H.P. Lovecraft would have been as a travel writer.

Maryland-born, he went to college in Georgia, became a newspaperman in Augusta, did The Grand Tour of Europe, came back to Atlanta, married a Coca-Cola heiress, and started an ad agency. All well and good.

World War I beckoned Seabrook back to Europe. Before America jumped in, he joined the American Field Service as an ambulance driver, got gassed at Verdun, and won the Croix de Guerre. He was 31- a decade older than Hemingway, Dos Passos, Malcolm Cowley and e.e. cummings and felt lost in a changing world: “I was a dog running in circles,” he wrote, “running away from myself.”

Seabrook sold his war diary to the Atlantic Monthly, only to see if commandeered by the Field Service for propaganda. He ran in the Paris expat writer crowd of his fellow ambulance drivers before returning to the US.

He settled in Georgia, on a farm his father-in-law gave him to be a gentleman writer, and in Greenwich Village. He set out to conquer Serious Literature but mostly hung out with plantation friends and drinking moonshine.

His plan to take New York by storm didn’t take. His Parisian cred only went so far. As Benjamin Welton wrote in 2015,

[F]or the most part, he was rejected by the highbrow art set for being a mere reporter with a taste for niche stories about sex crimes and the supernatural. In one instance recounted in Emily Matchar excellent The Zombie King, the novelist Theodore Dreiser made a point of snubbing Seabrook at a party by referring to him as a "yellow journalist."

This had unfortunate results. Seabrook had parchment-thin skin when it came to criticism, and when it came from his literary betters he drank away his sorrows.

That happened a lot.

Lugubrious- and well-lubricated- temperaments lend themselves to all sorts of oddments, and Seabrook sought solace in an increasing focus of fetishism. His friend Tony Sarg (1880-1942)- the father of modern American puppetry and inventor of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, introduced Seabrook to a puppetress known now only as “Deborah Luris.”

Thought by many to be one of the mistresses of Aleister Crowley, the scandalous British witchcraft peddler who spent a week on Seabrook’s farm in 1919 (the London Review of Books says, “for a week of ritual experiment... They communicated solely by various inflections of the magic word ‘Wow’”).

Luris somehow made the connection with Seabrook that the key to her heart lay through a padlock and a few yards of chain link.  Emily Matchar wrote,

Seabrook was drawn to Luris’s frank sexuality and her “broad, animal face,” and now, on a whim, he wrote an agonized letter to her to ask if she’d be interested in taking part in kinky games with him.

“Sure, why not?” Luris wrote back. “Come on up. But why be so solemn and self-conscious about it? It might be fun.”

Seabrook explained all this to [his wife] Katie, with whom he had what he later said was a largely platonic relationship. With her blessing he took the train up north, purchased locks and chains at Hammacher Schlemmer, and spent a week in the city, during which he barely left Luris’s apartment. “When people uncork parallel or complimentary chimeric wish-fantasies,” he wrote, “sparks generally fly. And so they did.”

His sense of adventure unchained, so to speak, and his need to succeed tortured by Dreiser’s snub, Seabrook turned a chance meeting with a Lebanese student at Columbia University into a tour of the Middle East:

In the Middle East, he remade himself as a gentleman adventurer, with silk pajamas and a case full of aspirin, rare in that part of the world, which he dispensed as favors to the wives of Bedouin warriors. He became an honorary member of the Beni Sakhr tribe and was invited to ride along on their horse-stealing raids. He converted to Islam to please a host. He watched Turkish dervishes whirl themselves into a trance and was offered the services of a bangled slave girl.

Seabrook’s first book, Adventures in Arabia: Among the Bedouins, Druses, Whirling Dervishes, and Yezidee Devil Worshipers, was published by Harcourt, Brace and Company in 1927. Primed by earlier accounts of Arabian adventures, especially those of T.E. Lawrence, the public devoured the book. Critics were less enthusiastic. One reviewer remarked that there was something “Elizabethan” in Seabrook’s lyricism over long-haired warriors and white-veiled harem beauties. Another noted his “melodramatic flair.”

Purple prose and exotic adventures were serving the twentysomething Princeton dropout Richard Halliburton well, Seabrook noted. He’d found his niche, and so would Seabrook:

The book established a formula that Seabrook would return to again and again over the next several years: 1) Arrive at impossibly exotic locale. 2) Seek out forbidden location/mysterious ritual/strange cult. 3) Receive warning not to dare go there/do that/talk to them or risk being killed/being cursed/going mad. 4) Defy warning. 5) Find location/ritual/cult fascinating and wonderful, and suggest that, while he of course is capable of debunking the phonily supernatural, the universe is also full of strange and mystical things we don’t understand.

This kind of florid orientalism, retrograde as it appears now, was a sign of progressive thinking at the time. Seabrook saw himself as anti-racist, a son of the South happy to break bread with savages, and this was the persona he’d cultivate over the next several books: the bold white traveler venturing with open heart and mind into the lands of mystery and “darkness.”

“I have a warm feeling toward Negroes,” he told his publisher shortly after the publication of Adventures in Arabia. “They’re perhaps by and large less intelligent than whites—or perhaps only less well educated—inferior intellectually in general if you choose, but I often think they’re superior to us emotionally and spiritually, perhaps superior in kindness and capacity for happiness. I’d like to go down to Haiti or somewhere and turn Negro, if I can.”

This idea, that the “primitive,” nonwhite world was a corrective to sterilized Western culture, was also a product of the time. The 20th century had dawned cold and mechanical, bringing machine guns and mustard gas and shiny metropolises full of dead-eyed worker-drones. To many intellectuals, primitive man had a connection to something more authentic, more spiritual—hot-blooded vitality as an antidote to the Lost Generation’s postwar malaise.
The Caribbean called. In 1929, he published The Magic Island, an account of a trip to Haiti in which he pursued his usual interests: initiation into ‘native’ rituals, drinking blood, feeling the authentic power of the savage gods.

‘The zombie, they say, is a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life. People who have the power to do this go to a fresh grave, dig up the body before it has had time to rot, galvanise it into movement, and then make of it a servant or slave, occasionally for the commission of some crime, more often simply as a drudge around the habitation or the farm, setting it dull heavy tasks, and beating it like a dumb beast if it slackens.’

Seabrook was astounded when his informant told him that there were zombies at work in the plantations of the Haitian-American Sugar Corporation. ‘I did see these “walking dead men”,’ Seabrook writes, ‘and I did, in a sense, believe in them and pitied them.’ Finding three ‘dead’ Haitians at work, he experiences ‘mental panic’, only to decide that they are ‘nothing but poor ordinary demented human beings, idiots, forced to toil in the fields’. The American occupiers were reinstating plantations and forcing peasants back to work in them in the name of modernity.

But the more he searched, the more he found, and the more Seabrook believed:

Over half a million copies of The Magic Island were sold, and Seabrook’s descriptions forever shaped the Western idea of zombies and voodoo. Religious practices involving multiple deities and spirits existed throughout the Caribbean and Latin America; every country had its mythical demons. But after The Magic Island, Haiti would always be viewed as the land of tom-toms pounding in the night and corpses staggering down the road, shaking off dirt from their graves. From the book’s publication forward, the white world would hear almost nothing of the helpful chore-doing zombie, the giant dog zombie, the playful spirit zombie. The only zombie that now existed in the Western imagination was the zombi cadavre.

The Magic Island was packaged to titillate. A 1929 ad for the book in The New Yorker featured a drawing of a shifty-eyed, pipe-smoking Constant Polynice, along with a quote from The Evening Post’s review of the book: “The steam-heated and incomplete orgies of New York’s night clubs usually leave their patrons foolishly futile and with a sense of gyp. … I would recommend to them a session with some real frenzy in this amazing work.”

Reviews were largely gushing, especially in the dailies and in middlebrow magazines. “It is not a twice-told tale, but a vivid record of things seen; it is no ladylike book, but a man’s story written for adult minds,” reported The Bookman, a New York literary journal published by Seward Bishop Collins, a man with the distinction of being both a self-proclaimed fascist and a onetime lover of Dorothy Parker.

Critics praised Seabrook’s willingness to investigate Haiti’s strange rituals with an open mind. “He has penetrated as few white men have done … to the soul of Haiti,” R.L. Duffus wrote in The New York Times.

Black American critics praised the book, as well. The review in Harlem’s Amsterdam News proclaimed it to be “the best book of the year on a negro subject.”

There were a handful of naysayers in the progressive media, especially among those who had a deep understanding of Haitian culture. “Although Mr. Seabrook has seen a great deal more than the average white man sees in the island, he has become so excited about it all that he cannot hope to be taken as an altogether credible witness,” wrote the socialist-leaning British weekly the New Statesman.

The anthropologist and Haitian-studies scholar Melville Herskovits wrote in The Nation:

“This book, like others of its kind, is a work of injustice.” Seabrook, Herskovitz argued, had given a shallow and credulous account of Haitian culture, focusing on the grotesque without investigating context or significance. What was Maman Célie’s day-to-day life like? What was the purpose of the goat slaughter? He accused Seabrook of repeating folk tales as fact and argued that The Magic Island’s sensationalism only served to lend credence to the view that Haitians were childlike primitives in need of American protection.

In his memoir, Seabrook described how badly the criticisms wounded his pride. “I had very few things to be proud of,” he wrote, “and one of them was that I knew I was an honest, if sensational reporter.” He even claimed to have refused a $15,000 syndication deal with a magazine that wanted to alter his descriptions of voodoo to make it appear more sinister and provocative. He couldn’t do that to Maman Célie, he said. “Between us was the same bond which bound and binds me still to my long-dead white witch-grandmother Piny,” he wrote.

Something about dead, tireless workers captured the American imagination in the depths of the Depression. Zombie, a play based on Seabrook’s book, opened on Broadway in 1932 and closed twenty performances later to howling reviews (it later reopened in Chicago as a comedy).

The movie White Zombie plundered Seabrook’s book (Matchcar attributes his lack of objection to the Lugosi vehicle’s liberties and his lack of royalties to a combination of still hoping to be seen as a serious writer, and his mother’s increasingly fraught letters about how he was embarrassing the family).

white zombie.jpg

He was now Mr Zombie. That world conquered, he moved on- to cannibalism.

He traveled in West Africa, found a cannibal tribe, and was irked when the chief refused a request to try the entree. Seabrook returned home, procured some human thigh from a New York hospital morgue, held a dinner party for himself, and invited his spectators to watch him partake. Then he wrote a book about it.
He wrote that, properly prepared, humans taste like veal.

Seabrook bought a castle in a French border town favored by European intellectuals, which fanned his ego and heightened his insecurities. He cold-called the vacationing Gertrude Stein and invited himself in for some authorial therapy. It earned him a place in Everybody’s Autobiography:

After all preachers’ sons will when they begin drink a lot and it wears them out. … It is funny about drinking. Seabrook told me about the white magic of Lourdes and how he wanted to go there and be a stretcher bearer. … He and I sat next to one another and gradually I told him all about myself.

Stein told him to get a grip, dry out, go home, and buckle down to his work.

Booze, bondage and exploitation: Seabrook was becoming the Christian Grey of the 1930s. In 1933- with a showman’s flair, on the day Prohibition was repealed- he committed himself to a seven-month stay in a New York sanitarium. He emerged sans his first wife, who finally had enough of him.

He also had enough material for another book. The Atlantic serialized it; Matchar calls it “the first celebrity rehab memoir.”

seabrook cure book.jpg

Seabrook struck another chord. Bill Wilson, founder of AA, framed his program in Seabrook’s ideas. F. Scott Fitzgerald, another famous drunk of the day, mocked it as farcical.

Sober, Seabrook produced a string or critically-panned, dull books. His second wife and fellow zombie hunter Marjorie Worthington, watched him turn is cure inside out. After some bad reviews he walked into the kitchen with a tote full of whiskey and declared, “I’m sick of being a cripple. From now on I’m going to prove that I can take a drink or leave it alone, like any other man.”

Marjorie bailed on Willie in 1942. She’d put up with a lot, including the stylishly kinky Man Ray photo series and his installation of another woman in their home.


Seabrook moved on to witchcraft: in 1941 put a hex on Adolf Hitler in a ceremony attended by a few friends and a Life magazine photographer.

Late in his life, Seabrook claimed vindication in his one great success by the publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse, her account of Jamaican and Haitian voodoo practices. It included supposed firsthand accounts of meeting zombies, though it inspired controversy over the rigor of her research methods and claims that Hurston simply glossed Seabrook stories from a decade before. Hurston herself said she was inspired by Seabrook’s work.

After Marjorie packed up, Seabrook married his last mistress. They had a son, William Seabrook the Eighth. When he was two-and-a-half, his father committed suicide.

Marjorie Worthington carried on as a successful journalist and author. Her last book was a biography of Seabrook in which she confessed she found his work so good, reading it would throw her off for days. She died in 1976.

The boy William grew up mostly with relatives and is a retired elementary school teacher in Burlington, North Carolina.

His son, William IX, is a singer-songwriter in LA who runs a group called Rock for Human Rights. He is also a Scientologist.

In 2013 a well-regarded biography revived interest in Seabrook’s work. In 2015 Dover began republishing his books; a graphic novel of his life was published early in 2017.

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